Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Happy New Year to all our visitors! If its New Year it must be Djibouti time and once again we are in this rather amazing little country at the North East corner of Africa. David is accompanied this year by Savi Leblond and Freya Womersley, team members from the Seychelles programme..... This is Freya's first impressions of Djibouti:

Instead of celebrating New Year with fireworks, the clinking of champagne glasses and a dramatic countdown, this year I found myself snoozing 38,975ft up in the air brutally awoken by the pilots New Year announcement and the half hearted ‘woo’s’ of the other passengers. As I entered into 2015 and away from the cold UK I was filled with excitement because I knew who I would be spending the beginning of my year with; the largest fish in the ocean and my favourite spotty friends… Whale Sharks!! Oh and did I mention that I was on my way to Djibouti!
My journey begins

Where’s Djibouti I hear you ask. I thought the same thing when I was asked to join the MCSS team for this year’s season. It’s a small country in the North East of Africa bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eretria and every November through February it becomes a place where whale sharks aggregate in huge numbers to feed in the plankton rich waters of the Gulf of Tadjourah. Since 2006 David and the team at MCSS have run expeditions here for two weeks each year to record, observe and monitor these sharks. Until I actually arrived here it was a place of myth and legend where all your Whale Shark dreams come true. I had heard tales of epic encounters with sharks coming at you from all directions, of fighting your way through swimming crabs to get your ID shot and of vertically feeding sharks displaying there white tummy’s and creating whirlpools as they gorge on plankton. I thought these were exaggerations and that no such place could possibly exist. Oh how I was wrong…

Our trip begins in the city of Djibouti where we spent most of our time sorting out equipment, getting spreadsheets up to date and organizing ourselves for our first week of sharking. We then headed to the port to board our boat for the week, an interesting drive through Djibouti where goats crossing the road and trailers full of camels were a common sight. During each week our base is the live aboard ‘Deli’, a beautiful and authentic wooden yacht that wouldn’t look out of place in Pirates of the Caribbean! The journey from port to our first anchoring spot was idyllic; mountains lined the gulf and as we passed we encountered schools of Dolphins and chatted with the other voyagers about their marine adventures. 
The beautiful MV Deli

After getting ourselves settled at Ras Korali our first anchoring spot, we were straight to work and ran our first session that afternoon. I didn’t know what to expect, and after a slow season in Seychelles I was worried my shark spotting skills were not up to scratch. It was time to find out as we had spotted our first shark within minutes. I jumped in and it all came flooding back to me, much like the water swiftly flooding my snorkel as I was smothered by a wave (at this point I’ll mention that sharks don’t care if it’s a sea state 4). I got my bearings and looked around. There it was, a huge shadow silhouetted in the distance. I stared at it in awe, I just stared, I cleared my snorkel and then I stared some more… and then it was gone. Just like that I had lost him, he was travelling at lightning speed like Savi on his way to the diner table. This was a fast shark and I needed to catch him up and do some science. So I took a deep breath and after a few seconds of frantic front crawl I was by his side, and thankfully he seemed to be slowing down. There I was, swimming alongside the world’s largest fish, my trip had officially begun. 

It’s not just me who wants to hang out with these guys!

Science time! Left ID shot,,check, sex.. check, right ID shot.. check, any scars, any other fauna, behavior.. check, check, check. I had done it; my first Djibouti shark and all had gone to plan. So I decided to relax and just hang out with him for a bit to take in the momen…’FREYA STOP SWIMMING WE’VE DONE THIS ONE’, the sweet dulcet tones of Savi called over the waves. Wait what? Why would I ever optionally stop swimming with a shark?! Turns out this guy had A LOT of friends and they all needed to be recorded, so we were back on the boat and ready for the next one. There was no time to hang out with each one, and that was the point when I finally understood why we have an ‘observers leave’ column in our spreadsheets. The rest of the session was a whirlwind. I was in and out of the boat and seeing more sharks than I had all season in Seychelles, and all in our first afternoon. My initial worries were dispelled and I was once again living the dream with my big ol’ spotty buddies. A dream that would be slightly sweeter if it was easier to get back onto the boat… 
Me struggling to get back onto the boat....

If you haven’t experience it before, there are no words that can describe being in the water with a whale shark, I’ve tried many times but I can never seem to do it justice. It is quite simply magical. To be able to glimpse these creatures’ mysterious lives and swim along side them for an instant is incredible and I will remember these moments for the rest of my life. The stories are true about Djibouti and it is an amazing Whale Shark haven. Savi and I are having an incredible time observing them but what makes it so special is that we are getting data that will aid the conservation of these animals so they can be enjoyed and appreciated in years to come. 
Savi and big spotty friend...

Me with my happy whale shark face...

Just cruising with one solitary pilot fish...

....and a surface view!

After each session on the boat there’s time for a quick shower and change before we get straight to organizing encounters, renaming photos and editing ID shots before our next session. This can be tricky with more than one spotter and multiple encounters, but we get it done and enjoy looking at each others photos and the occasional glass of rum! It’s then Savi’s favorite time of the day and we all sit down to an amazing meal cooked by the Deli’s chef before heading to our cozy cabins to get rocked to sleep. The days are long, we are bruised, battered and always just a little bit tired but we are having the most incredible time learning more about these sharks and watching them in their natural habitat. Bring on next week with more sharks, more fun, less sleep and more work as David hasn't even begun to crack the whip yet’! Wish us luck!
A spiky little customer!
Dolphins are always a welcome addition!

Even when we don’t see sharks, which has only happened once! Djibouti still delivers. We’ve been playing with Dolphins, Turtles, and of course the swimming crabs.

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